Historically, injustice has always had eyes for love.
Whether it’s the Supreme court cases of Loving v. Virginia (1967) on interracial marriage or the Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) on same-sex marriage, injustice has stared love in the face with eyes wide open: judging it, hating it, refusing it, even making the formal union of that love, marriage illegal.
Justice has never been blind, and the law has always lagged behind the humanity of the people it’s suppose to serve. But before landmark decisions made history and headlines, there was just love.
Mildred Delores Jeter, nicknamed “String Bean” for how skinny she was, met the then rugged 17-year-old drag racer Richard Loving when she was 11 years old. Described as shy and soft-spoken, Mildred thought Richard was arrogant at first. After spending more time together, the two started dating and fell in love. When 18-year-old Mildred found out she was pregnant with Richard’s baby, they wed in 1958. Unbeknownst to the newlyweds, it was a felony for interracial couples to marry, since Mildred was of African American and Native American descent. Richard was of European descent.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until we got married,” said Mildred in an interview with ABC News in 2007. So bad that the police invaded the Lovings’ home in the dead of night on an anonymous tip. Thanks to Virginia’s 400-year-old anti-miscegenation law, the couple was charged with a felony and faced one to five years in prison. Although Mildred and Richard reached a plea bargain, they were ordered to leave the state of Virginia and could not return together for 25 years. They then lived in a poor neighborhood in D.C., but would secretly visit Virginia together. The turning point was when one of Mildred and Richard’s kids was hit by a drunk driver.
Encouraged by family, in 1963 Mildred wrote to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy who put her in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU accepted the couple’s case and a course of high profile legal battles brought the case to the Supreme Court in 1967. The Lovings made history when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor on June 12 by prohibiting any laws against interracial couples.
Today, overall sentiment about interracial marriages have relaxed.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis, in 2013 a record-high of 12% newlyweds married someone of a different race. And in 2013 Gallup reported that 87% of Americans approved of Black-White marriage v. just 4% in 1958, which represents the largest shift of public opinion in Gallup history. But history is never really history.
History merely reinvents itself against a different target – same-sex couples. Again, before the legal battles and watershed decisions, there was just love; a man who loved a man, a woman who loved a woman and their right to marriage.
Long before Obergefell v. Hodges and not even five years after the Loving v. Virginia Supreme court ruling, there was Baker v. Nelson of 1971. Two University of Minnesota students, Richard Baker and James Michael were denied a marriage license from Hennepin County District Court clerk Gerald Nelson in Minneapolis on the sole grounds that they were both male. Baker and McConnell took their case as high as the Supreme court, which would rule against the couple. Baker v. Nelson’s court ruling would later be used in other states as a precedent to block same-sex marriages in other states.
The next 44 years would be filled with a mix of milestones and setbacks. More states would prohibit same-sex marriage, other states would rule in favor of same-sex marriage, President Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) would pass into law in 1996, which defined marriage between a man and a woman, the recognition of civil unions, the dissolution of those same civil unions, the Vatican’s campaign against same-sex marriage, President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage in 2012, and finally to Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.
Obergefell v. Hodges was a culmination of state level cases where 14 same-sex couples and two men whose partners were deceased sued their state agencies in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee to challenge their bans on same-sex marriage. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of same-sex marriage and required all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The government and its laws not only shape public opinion but lead social norms.
It wasn’t OK for interracial or same-sex couples to wed until the government said so. Supreme Court rulings set precedent. Bills became laws, and laws shaped our nation’s approach to humanity. Humanity is intrinsic, it’s the law that’s acquired. I don’t treat someone like a human being because the law told me to. I treat them like a human being because they’re a human being.
June 12 marks the 49th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia court ruling. Interracial marriage was illegal not even two generations ago. The legalization of same-sex marriage has barely even reached its one-year anniversary. As an openly gay Black man in an interracial relationship, my love for my partner would’ve gotten me killed in the 60s (still now probably) and not federally acknowledged until last year if we were married. But as a Black, gay man, I can’t afford to wait for the government’s acknowledgement.
We set our own precedent for who and how we love, the law just crafts perception of that love. Again, back in 1958, only 4% of Americans supported interracial marriage. Today, it’s 87%. It took the nation 55 years to accept and respect interracial love. When Gallup first asked Americans about same-sex marriage in 1996, 68% opposed the idea. As pro same-sex marriage legislation started to accelerate, Gallop reported in 2014 that 55% of Americans are in support of same-sex marriage.
Law may change the nation’s sentiment, but it’s love that begets law in terms of marriage equality. Like always, we were just waiting for the law to catch up, but love has always been caught up.
Terrence Chappell is a Chicago-based writer. He covers an array of topics ranging from social justice to more brain candy content such as pop culture and infotainment. Terrence has been featured on JETMAG.com, Huffington Post, Advocate.com, Windy Cindy Times, and the Black Youth Project. When he isn’t writing, Terrence works as a social media manager at Burrell Communications.